Who “ruled the air” in 1910? (and who rules it now?)
Revolutionary, democratic, unprejudicial—Verizon’s [Rule the Air] campaign comes as Americans debate whether the wireless broadband airwaves really represent any of these wonderful things. Who will really rule the air, consumer advocates wonder, smart phone users or the wireless carriers? Two mobile providers dominate the broadband airwaves and, thanks to a recent federal court decision, they enjoy unchecked power to limit or prioritize data, content, and features at their pleasure.
But this isn’t the first time a big carrier tried a charm offensive of this sort. A century ago, the insurgent phone company of the time—American Telephone and Telegraph—also found itself swimming in a sea of public worry. Consumers and independent providers feared (rightly as it turned out) that the corporation would prevail in its ultimate goal, the acquisition of almost all of the nation’s phone lines.
I’m a sucker for all things old Bell System. That said, this article deconstructs Ma Bell’s PR efforts in the early part of the 20th Century to make it seem less like an evil monopoly and more of a public, necessary good. They were rather successful, too, since they successfully kept the public opinion and regulators at bay for many decades until the historic breakup of the Bell System in 1984.
There are some rather interesting parallels here between what Ma Bell did and the Verizon and AT&T (descendants of Ma Bell) are doing now. Worth reading so you’ll know what to expect, since I suspect the fruit will not fall too far from the tree.